Technologies Reach Across Campus, State—and World

Collaboration Within the Classroom

At the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, a product that’s not intended specifically for classroom use has become a popular collaboration tool. Rob Ditto, senior IT project leader at Wharton, explained that the school is in its sixth year of using eRoom, a Web-based collaboration product from Documentum, to create a collaborative classroom environment. The Web-based eRoom product provides a universal data repository that can store and manage a number of data types, and an application programming interface (API) that allowed Wharton Computing and Information Technology to customize it further.

Specifically, the school has created a customized version of eRoom, which the school calls webCafé. The software not only provides easy-to-use Web-based tools for courseware management, but the IT group at Wharton has customized the product to offer additional interesting collaborative features. The software is now used each year by all 11 Wharton academic departments in over 400 courses and 6,900 students across all of the school’s curricula.

For example, webCafé provides virtual "rooms" for collaborative purposes. Using a variety of Web browsers, faculty and students can use the rooms to discuss and vote on topics of interest; share and search for documents, group calendars and task lists, and collaborate on projects online, regardless of location.

"We saw an opportunity when we selected this platform to tackle two problems at once," Ditto said: "[It offers] a good and easy way for faculty to put class information up on the Web, and collaborative possibilities for students working in groups."

"We saw an opportunity when we selected this platform to tackle two problems at once"

The popularity of the program is evident—faculty are free to elect to use the tool or not, and over 60 percent of courses now incorporate webCafé. Its popularity may come at least partly from the software’s fundamental ease of use. Faculty actually use the product themselves, Ditto said—a good sign with any technology tool.

One collaborative way that Wharton uses the software is in helping groups of students work together on a project. Every course’s eRoom at Wharton has the ability for ad hoc groups to create project folders, share files and track revisions. Some faculty have opted to use a custom tool that the IT group has developed to allow students to use eRoom to check online, see who is in a group and which groups are full, and join a particular group.

Another popular—and somewhat unanticipated—collaborative use of the software has been its voting function. "As soon as we started to offer it," Ditto said, "we saw faculty starting to use it [as an] informal voting tool to help a collaborative group arrive at a decision." In some cases, Ditto said, other tools might be better for actual secure voting, but the use of the product points to a truth about software, whether collaborative or other—users will bend a popular technology to make it fit their needs.

As popular as the collaborative classroom technology has proven to be at Wharton, why haven’t more schools adopted similar strategies? Cost might be one reason, Ditto hypothesized. "We’re a bit of a lone wolf in using relatively expensive collaboration software," he admits. Also, administrators facing myriad other challenges, especially security, may see collaboration as "an extra," Ditto said, "something nice to have but not essential."

Also, when he helped the school choose eRoom in 1998, more specific classroom-intended products weren’t fully mature. "It helps that at that time, course management wasn’t a well-defined software capability... Blackboard and WebCT were just getting started." Today, it might be tougher to sell top administrators on using eRoom as the collaborative tool it’s become for the school.

Collaboration Between Classrooms
At Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, innovative approaches to collaboration are both in place and under further development, including work on a distributed learning environment that allows students in different locations to review multimedia lectures. That project, directed by Lonnie Harvel, is called eClass, and builds on Classroom 2000, an earlier work at Georgia Tech by associate professor Gregory Abowd and Jason Brotherton. Harvel is a senior research scientist at Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering; he’s also the director of the Digital Media Lab and associate director of the Arbutus Center for Distributed Engineering Education.

The Classroom 2000 project integrated technology and multimedia in the classroom by freeing students from frantic note taking during multimedia lectures. Instead, electronic whiteboard, audio, and video equipment capture the classroom experience, allowing students to access it on a laptop computer later—along with instructor notes and student comments. After the lecture, a program weaves the recorded events together into material that can be viewed through a standard Web browser. Students can replay the entire lecture, or can choose a portion of it from a timeline.

In the new project, eClass, Harvel is taking things farther by creating a distributed environment for Classroom 2000. "We sometimes have classrooms in multiple locations, and they may not even be connected to the Internet," he explains. "You can use [eClass] to transfer information—and also to capture everything in every class." Students can now access the information alone or as a group over a wireless connection using laptops or even PDAs—meaning students can review a specific classroom experience anywhere with an Internet connection. Harvel explains that to him, distributed education means that learning "can happen at any time or anywhere" and "collaborative means collaboration across geographic distances."

"[Learning] can happen at any time or anywhere" and "collaborative means collaboration across geographic distances."

Georgia Tech has captured and is making available well over 3,000 lectures and 117 courses. One of Harvel’s challenges has now become search and storage capabilities, as he works on better ways to store and access the data. For example, he wants to allow a student to search for just those classes he or she attended, since the system tracks who was present. The relationship between students, their captured learning experiences, and their notes is maintained in the Concept-Context Cache, an XML-based data system. An information storage technique, the software keeps track of what students are working on, and with whom. "Part of the design is to allow them to share segments with others," Harvel explains.

Harvel is also doing work on a collaborative technique called classroom capture, in which "a group of students are brought in [and] handed a problem that’s beyond them. They collaboratively explore it, find out what they know and don’t know, and figure out how to solve it—and even what constitutes an answer."

This summer, Harvel plans to put "the final tweaks on eClass," with the intention of launching it into 11 classrooms in the fall. The goal by fall of 2006: to have it in use in 150 classrooms, and to make sure the program is simple enough from a user’s point of view that, "If the professor has a laptop and projector, they can use it."

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